Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon [2021]

Oct 12, 2020


by Matty Sims

Everyone who gets into bourbon asks these same questions, so we’ve compiled the complete beginner’s guide to bourbon. If you have additional questions please leave a comment and we’ll answer it there.

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Get Started: Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon

Beginner's Guide to Bourbon

Alright, let’s get this Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon started with frequently asked questions.

Related: Best Bourbons Ranked for Every Budget (2020)

What’s the Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey?

The short answer: All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon. The long answer: Whiskey (or you might see it as whisky but it’s the same drink) is made from a fermented grain mash including barley, corn, rye, and wheat.

Sometimes these grains are also malted. This spirit is generally aged in wood barrels (sometimes called casks). Bourbon is whiskey that has a mash bill made of at least 51% corn among other regulations (see below) and is aged in new, charred oak barrels (generally American White Oak).

What is the Definition of Bourbon Whiskey?

Bourbon truly is America’s native spirit which was enshrined into law by Congress in 1964 when they called it a “distinctive product of the United States” and set up the requirements for when whiskey transforms into bourbon. Here are the cliff notes version:

  •  It must be made in America (sorry Kentuckians — bourbon can be made outside of the bluegrass state).
  • It must have 51% corn in its mash bill but the other grains are up for grabs. Generally, the secondary grains are rye and barley, but some of the most highly renowned bourbons use wheat as the second grain and barley as the third.
  • Must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
  • Cannot be distilled over 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume).
  • Must enter the new, charred oak barrel at 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume) or less.
  • Bottled at 80 proof or more (40% alcohol by volume)

What Are the Types of Bourbon Whiskey?

The types might fall into different categories. We will start with the different types of bourbon mash bills. The most common bourbon mash bill has the required 51% corn, a secondary grain of rye, and barley. This mash bill can be high rye (e.g., Wild Turkey, New Riff) or low rye (e.g., Elijah Craig, Buffalo Trace). The higher the rye generally the more spice is present.

The next most popular mash bill replaces the rye with wheat. So you might 51% plus corn, wheat, and barley. This mash bill was made popular by the now defunct Stitzel Weller distillery in the mid-twentieth century with brands like Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, Weller, and Pappy Van Winkle. These wheated bourbons are still being made today but by different distilleries after Stitzel Weller shut its doors in 1972. The wheat is a softer flavor and takes premium aging well. Let’s call the last type experimental.

Some distillers are more adventurous with their mash bills than others. You will have mash bills that include four grains (corn, wheat, rye, and barley), five grains, or other grains like amaranth, malted grains, triticale, rice, oat, millet, or sorghum. The other types of bourbons would fall into a categories we’ll discuss below — straight bourbon whiskey and bottled in bond.

What does bottled in bond mean?

Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 was one of the first consumer protections laws and was passed in response to adulterated bourbon whiskey that was in some worst case scenarios killing people. As with many government regulations, distilleries who sought this designation for their spirits received a tax incentive. Having the bottled in bond tax strip was a badge of trust in the eyes of consumer.

Here’s the gist. The spirit must be:

  • the product of one distilling season
  • the work one of one distillery
  • demonstrate the skill of one distiller
  • aged for no less than 4 years
  • bottled at 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume)

Also, if you’re looking for a bottled in bond whiskey chances are you’ll run across one from the Heaven Hill distillery. They have a deep and delicious catalog of bottled in bond bourbons and whiskeys.

What is straight bourbon whiskey?

Straight bourbon whiskey is all about consumer protection, aging, and proof. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 dictated that “straight whiskey” must be distilled from a fermented cereal grain mash, may not be distilled higher than 160 proof (80% ABV), aged for a minimum for 2 years, and enter the barrel no more than 125 proof (62.5 ABV).

Only water may be added to bring the proof down. Last, any straight whiskey aged less than four years must have an age statement, and it always reflect the youngest whiskey in the bottle. You’ll notice the original question was about “straight bourbon whiskey” and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 dealt mainly with “straight whiskey” that’s because bourbon wasn’t officially bourbon until 1964.

That’s why you’ll also notice some of the “straight” requirements mirror bourbon’s like the distillation and barrel entry proof. To be designated, “straight bourbon whiskey” a spirit must not only meet all of the requirements from the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 but also meet Congress’ 1964 definition of what bourbon is.

Also, in common parlance, “straight” can also be a request for a whiskey or bourbon without ice or other add ons at a bar. “Hey bar keep, give me a shot of Maker’s straight.”

What is the difference between Single Barrel and Small Batch bourbon?

These terms can be confusing for bourbon newbies. Single barrel is the easiest to define so we’ll start there. After the spirit is distilled, it’s moved to barrels where it becomes bourbon whiskey. Some barrels may have exceptional flavor on its own. Distilleries market and sell this bourbon whiskey as a single barrel. This designation was popularized by Colonel Albert Blanton at the now Buffalo Trace Distillery and is sold as Blanton’s. It’s a single barrel of bourbon whiskey not mingled or blended with any other barrel.

Small batch is less clear and can cause confusion. There are no regulations on what small batch means. It might mean a craft distillery mingling 5-10 barrels to hit their desired flavor profile. Or it might mean a larger distillery mingling 200 plus barrels. Some popular small batch bourbon whiskeys include Maker’s Mark, Buffalo Trace, and Elijah Craig.

How do beginners drink bourbon?

Most beginners start by mixing bourbon with something sweet like coke or maybe a sour mix, while others start off by adding ice to their bourbon. There’s no wrong way to drink bourbon as a beginner. Don’t listen to the bourbon snobs who say otherwise. If a little water is good for Booker Noe, it’s good enough for me.

What is the smoothest bourbon?

If you’re looking for a smoother bourbon, I would make two recommendations. First, you should explore a wheated bourbon like Maker’s Mark. A wheated bourbon is one where the second grain is wheat. For most bourbons, the second grain is rye which adds more spice. Second, try Gentleman Jack. The charcoal mellowing Jack Daniel’s uses creates a smoother profile. Gentleman Jack is double mellowed for extra smoothness.

How do you pick a good bourbon?

First, know what you’re looking for. Do you want to try something new? Are you looking for a particular flavor profile? That will help narrow down the field. I might be biased here but use the search field in the menu bar and start reading reviews on whiskeys. I would start off by browsing our Best Bourbons Under $30 and Best Rye Whiskeys Under $30 lists. The risk is low under $30.

What do you need for a bourbon tasting?

Here’s a list of everything you’ll need:

  • A solid lineup of whiskeys — decide the theme of your tasting. Should it be all wheated bourbons? All rye whiskeys? All high proof or all low proof? All from one region? Have fun with it. This is the best part.
  • Glasses for your tasting. My personal favorite glass is a Glencairn whiskey glass. But even a simple rocks glass will do.
  • A good quality bottled water to help clear your palate in between drinks. You can also use the water to add drops to bourbon to see how it affects the flavor profile.
  • Have good snacks. First, it’s always good to eat while drinking but some basic saltine crackers are also a great palate cleanser in between pours.
  • Food pairing. Slightly different then just your basic snacks. Try having three or four food pairs to eat alongside the bourbon and see how the flavor profile changes. I would recommend (1) chocolate (I like to use Ferrero Rocher), (2) some kind of nut, (3) dried fruit, and (4) cheese. I recommended a harder, aged cheese. Your mind will be blown by how much the flavor changes after eating some of these items.
  • Paper for notes. Look at the color of the whiskey. How does it coat the glass? Give it a swirl. How does it smell? Open your mouth and get your nose in whatever glass you choose. Take a small sip and really chew that bourbon. What do you taste? The finish — does your throat burn, tingle, and do the flavors linger?
  • When I do a tasting, I try to think about flavor memories. Thinking of clove, cinnamon, vanilla can be abstract. Think about the foods you love. Does this taste like your favorite birthday cake or banana pudding?

Should you let bourbon breathe?

I recommend letting higher proof bourbons breathe so some of the alcohol vapors evaporate.

What’s the best bourbon to drink straight?

I would argue all bourbon deserves to be tried straight or neat (no ice or mixer added). But the better the quality of the bourbon, the more that’s true. But at the end of the day drink your bourbon, how you enjoy it. The legendary Pappy Van Winkle enjoyed his bourbon on the rocks with a twist of lemon. Can’t argue with the OG.

What Bourbon does John Wick drink?

He drinks Blanton’s. Blanton’s is often the unicorn for new bourbon drinkers then it becomes en vogue to hate on it. I’d be careful though. If it’s good enough for John Wick, it’s good enough for me.

What is the best bourbon for the price?

If I’m also considering availability, I’d have to go with Early Times Bottled in Bond or Wild Turkey 101.

Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon: 59 Bourbons for Beginners

Best Bourbons for Every Budget We’ve compiled a complete list of bourbons ranked for every budget. You can scroll through each category and also see how each bourbon compares by price and availability:

Get To Know Your Bourbon Abbreviations and Acronyms

Upon entering the world of bourbon, you probably noticed there’s a language you have to learn. It’s full of acronyms and abbreviations. We’ve got you covered below with our complete bourbon abbreviations.

Bourbon Abbreviations and Acronyms
4R – Four RosesER – Eagle RareNAS – Non Age StatedRHF – Rock Hill Farms
4RYL – Four Roses Yellow LabelER17 - Eagle Rare 17ND – National DistillersRitt – Rittenhouse Rye
AA or AAA – Ancient AgeET – Early TimesNDP – Non Distilling ProducerRR – Russell’s Reserve
AB – Abraham BowmanETL – Elmer T. LeeOB - Orphan BarrelRRR – Russell’s Reserve Rye
ABV – Alcohol By VolumeEW – Evan WilliamsOC – Old CharterRY – Rebel Yell
AE – Angel’s EnvyFC – Fighting CockOCPR – Old Charter Proprietor’s ReserveSA – Smooth Ambler
AECS – Angel’s Envy Cask StrengthFRSBLE - Four Roses Single Barrel Limited EditionOCT – Old Cousin TouchersSAOS – Smooth Ambler Old Scout
AHH – A. H. HirschFRSmBLE - Four Roses Small Batch Limited EditionOF – Old Fitzgerald (not Old Forester)Saz – Sazerac 18 from the BTAC
AS – Age StatedGD – George DickelOFBB – Old Forester Birthday BourbonSB – Single Barrel
B25 – Booker's 25thGNS – Grain Neutral SpiritsOGD – Old Grand DadSFTB – Straight From The Barrel
B30 – Booker's 30thGTS – George T. StaggOO – Old OverholtSmB – Small Batch
BC – Boone CountyH21 – Hirsch 21ORVW - Old Rip Van Winkle 10 yrSW or S-W – Stitzel Weller
BF – Brown FormanH22 – Hirsch 22OS – Old ScoutTHH - Thomas H. Handy Rye
BHC – Bourbon Heritage CollectionHazmat – Any whiskey over 140 proof (not allowed to go on a plane)OT – Old TaylorV17 / V21 / V23 – Vintage 17 etc.
BIB – Bonded In BondHH – Heaven HillOWA - Old Weller Antique 107VOB – Very Old Barton
BMH – Black Maple HillHHSS – Heaven Hill Select StockOWO – Old Weller OriginalVOF / VXOF / VVOF – Very Old, Very Xtra Old, Very Very Old Fitzgerald
BP – Barrel ProofHW – High WestOESF – Four Roses Recipe - 75% Corn, 20% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast FVOSN – Very Olde St Nick
BT – Buffalo TraceJB – Jim BeamOESK – Four Roses Recipe - 75% Corn, 20% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast KVSOF – Very Special Old Fitzgerald
BTAC - Buffalo Trace Antique CollectionJD – Jack DanielsOESO – Four Roses Recipe - 75% Corn, 20% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast OVWFRR – Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye
BTEC - Buffalo Trace Experimental CollectionJPS – Jefferson’s Presidential SelectOESQ – Four Roses Recipe - 75% Corn, 20% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast QWFE – Willett Family Estate
CGF – Cheesy Gold Foil (Wild Turkey 12 yr)K&L – K&L Wine Merchants, store in San FranciscoOESV – Four Roses Recipe - 75% Corn, 20% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast VW12 – Weller 12 Year
CoK – Cream of KentuckyKBD – Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (aka Willett)OBSF – Four Roses Recipe - 60% Corn, 35% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast FWLW – William Larue Weller
CS – Cask StrengthLDI – Lawrenceburg Distillers IndianaOBSK – Four Roses Recipe - 60% Corn, 35% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast KWR – Woodford Reserve
DSP – Distilled Spirits Plant numberLE – Limited EditionOBSO – Four Roses Recipe - 60% Corn, 35% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast OWSR – Weller Special Reserve
EC – Elijah CraigLot B – Pappy Van Winkle 12 yrOBSQ – Four Roses Recipe - 60% Corn, 35% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast QWT – Wild Turkey
ECBP - Elijah Craig Barrel ProofM10 – Michter’s 10 Year SBOBSV – Four Roses Recipe - 60% Corn, 35% Rye, 5% Malted Barley, Yeast VWTAS – Wild Turkey American Spirit
EHT – Colonel E.H. TaylorM20 – Michter’s 20 Year SBPf – ProofWTKS – Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit
EHTBP - E. H. Taylor Barrel ProofMGPI – MGP of Indiana, former Seagrams Distillery (formerly LDI)PHC – Parker’s Heritage CollectionWTR – Wild Turkey Rye
EHTLE - E. H. Taylor Limited EditionMM – Maker’s MarkPOH – Promise Of HopeWTRB – Wild Turkey Rare Breed
MWND – Mid Winter Night’s DramPVW - Pappy Van WinkleYO – Years old, as in 12YO

Let us know in the comments what we should add to this Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon.

Start shopping for bourbon swag for your journey. The Bard’s Shop has custom tees and hoodies, books, barrels, and more.

Written by Matty Sims

Matty Sims is the Editor-in-Chief at a digital media company. LeAnn (his wife) and his daughters Claire, Maddy, and Adele along with a brand new pup Booker live in Taylors, SC, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He enjoys cracking a well-aged bottle of bourbon with friends and sharing stories, or cracking one of his favorite daily sippers on the back porch while the pup and his kids play in the backyard. He is a storyteller at heart, and Bourbon has deep roots in storytelling.
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  1. chuck branch

    I just came across your website; I am most impressed. I publish a regional Whiskey magazine in the ozarks, and I am often asked the same questions. I find myself torn between boring my more advanced readers, and the importance of educating the less informed. You have done an excellent job with your beginners guide, i am CONFIDENT the information will be appreciated. nice work on the ABBREVIATIONS.
    Good luck moving forward.
    chuck branch,
    whiskey & leisure magazine


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